After nearly two decades at ESPN, former ABC Television president Steve Bornstein will oversee this fall's launch of the National Football League's first 24-hour cable network. The NFL Network will tap the league's vast library of classic games and develop original programming to support the No.1 spectator sport in America.
Bornstein, who oversaw the launch of ESPN2 and ESPNews during his tenure at ESPN, joined the NFL last September as an advisor on television and strategic media. He played a pivotal role in the league's decision to extend its "NFL Sunday Ticket" out-of-market package on DirecTV Inc. through 2007.
In his first in-depth interview since joining the NFL, Bornstein recently sat down with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead to discuss the launch of the NFL Network as well as to provide insight on today's precarious cable sports marketplace. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: The NFL Network will officially launch on Nov. 4. Given the multiyear deals the league has with broadcast and cable networks, as well as direct-broadcast satellite services, why do you feel it's important to now launch a standalone channel, as opposed to waiting until those deals are up?
Bornstein: The question I've always asked is, 'When is the best time to launch?' And I've never found the answer being to wait. The sooner you launch, the sooner you can figure out what the programming mix is and get the rhythm and feel that the network develops. So we're launching now because we have the opportunity to do that.
We're launching now because we feel that there is a big demand for our product today, and we think we'll be better able to serve our programming demands later on by getting up and running.
MCN: What will viewers expect to see on the NFL Network once it officially launches?
Bornstein: Whatever they see in November of '03 will be different than in November '04 and '05. But they're looking for programming that's representative of what the NFL is, which is great family entertainment. And we're going to be inclusive; we're going to program for people who are casual NFL fans, serious NFL fans and ardent NFL fans.
MCN: During your tenure at ESPN, you experienced the cable wars and you dealt first hand with operators. You also launched ESPN News and ESPN2 back in the-mid '90s. Is it easier to launch a network in today's digital-cable environment than it was in the past?
Bornstein: I don't look at it as easy or hard. I think this is a network whose time has come, and I think we're getting extremely positive reception from cable operators and satellite providers.
The NFL is the strongest programming brand name in the business. It's the platinum standard of product. Everyone I've talked to has expressed great interest in trying to understand what we're doing and distributing our product.
MCN: When you say operators are interested in the service, have you actually negotiated distribution deals with them?
Bornstein: We are in the process — we have had a lot of discussions with operators, both before we made the announcement that we were going to launch a channel and subsequent to it. So I'm feeling very comfortable that there is a demand out there from cable operators for quality programming to help drive their business, and the NFL Network fits that bill.
With the exception of our DirecTV distribution agreement, we haven't announced any new distribution [deals]. We're in the process of putting together what our agreement will include.
MCN: How much are you going to charge operators for the service?
Bornstein: I think it's going to be a nominal amount. We think it will be very reasonably priced, and price is not going to be an impediment to distributing the channel.
MCN: A lot of new networks launching today are seeking digital-tier distribution. Will you try to gain analog distribution?
Bornstein: We're in the process of putting together what all the terms and conditions will be. I think this will be quality product that will help the digital boxes, but we're not going to limit our distribution to digital. It's unimportant to me on what bandwidth we are actually distributed in, but what's really important is how many homes will we reach and how quickly.
MCN: I've talked to a number of operators who have already said they would look to put the NFL Network on a sports tier along with other niche-oriented sports services. Would that work for you as well?
Bornstein: I don't look at this as a niche sports-oriented service. I look at this as definitive programming in this country, and where is the best place to distribute that? I think that would be an individual operator decision.
Clearly, we think this will be a fresh and innovative product to help move digital boxes — I think better than some of the other experiences they've had to date — but we look at this beyond just as a cable network. This is a relationship with the NFL. This is access to very compelling VOD programming, and this is a 24-7 NFL Network that we think will attract a quality audience for cable operators, both to sell local advertising and to sell more services, too.
MCN: How will the NFL Network take advantage of HDTV and VOD and other new technologies that are out there?
Bornstein: Well, we're going to launch, for the most part, in standard-definition this fall, but we're going to have a game of the week in high-definition that would air on a weekly basis.
As we put more programming on the air, obviously we want to migrate more of our product to high-definition. We'll use NFL Films programming, all of which has recently been converted to high-def. So we have a lot of product that we think will be pretty compelling.
The VOD applications will go in a couple of different areas. We have an historical product, with Super Bowl highlights, for the last 30-plus years that will be available for VOD. Our current [original] programming will all be available as we put our libraries together in a VOD environment.
We see two packages. We see a package for the fan inside the marketplace, and you'll see a package for the disenfranchised, relocated fan. Again, it's both historical product and contemporary product, like local coaches' shows, that will be available to a VOD offering.
In addition, we'll be offering preseason games that are not nationally distributed through VOD in out-of-market areas.
It's a pretty rich package and we're in the process of actually formalizing that with a comprehensive deal that includes network distribution.
MCN: The NBA earlier this year launched its own standalone service and is using live games as a selling point for the network. Do you think that not having live games will be a disadvantage for the NFL Network?
Bornstein: I've been around long enough to be smart enough not to comment on other businessmen and business plans, so I can't really speak to NBA television. But my experience through 20-plus years is that ESPN did very well televising information and programming from the Super Bowl, and we've never once televised one Super Bowl.
This network is for the underserved fan. We believe there is great demand and pent-up interest in more information.
I know it's hard for many people to imagine that ESPN doesn't cover the sports fan's enthusiasm to the nth degree, but they said the same thing when we launched ESPN2, and they said the same thing when we launched ESPNews. There is an insatiable demand for quality sports programming — let's not just limit it to sports.
We think the NFL Network fits that bill. ESPN does a wonderful job with the NFL, but they also do other sports, whether it's basketball or football or college football or hockey or baseball. We believe, with the quality programming that we produce, that there is support for this beyond the games.
So I'm quite confident that we will launch a very successful, reasonably priced, highly distributed network that everybody will be proud of.
MCN: There has been some talk that the NFL Network is considering the distribution of games from the Arena Football League. Is that something that you're looking at?
Bornstein: We're going to announce our programming as we get it, but this is NFL Network. I think it's fair to say that NFL Europe games will be distributed by the channel and our preseason games will be distributed by the channel.
At this point, we have no intention of televising any of the [NFL] regular-season games during the next three years because they're under contract. I think anything beyond that is speculative.
MCN: If you go into the next couple of years and you're not able to get significant distribution from the cable operators, would you use the fact that you might be able to offer the NFL Sunday Ticket package to MSOs as a way to help sell in the NFL Network?
Bornstein: I look at it in two stages. We clearly have no ability to distribute the Sunday Ticket package today, so I don't know if it makes any sense to be discussing that today. So we're launching our NFL Network in '03, and we think we'll make a pretty compelling case for operators to distribute it. It helps their business and it helps our business.
The real deal is that we're going to put out a smart and fair deal for cable operators to distribute our quality programming. To me that's a win-win-win. The consumer wins, cable operator wins, the NFL wins.
MCN: How much are you spending for start-up costs?
Bornstein: We're treating this like a real network. Typically, these costs are in excess of $100 million, and that's what we're budgeted to do. Hopefully, we're going to exceed our business plan. But we're not holding back anything. It's going to be first-rate programming. Look at the people we're attracting to come work here. World-class companies are made with world-class employees.
I'm very pleased with the quality of people we've gotten — [former ESPN SportsCenter anchor] Rich Eisen in front of the camera to [former FX Networks senior vice president of business operations and finance] Adam Shaw. Our affiliate sales team is wonderful. I'm quite excited.
MCN: How long will it take for the network to break even?
Bornstein: My experience is that these networks turn around in the fifth and sixth year, going back to my ESPN and Disney days. We expect to do a little better than that.
MCN: When you were heading up ESPN, did you ever foresee what's happening in the cable-sports arena today — the animosity that's out there for ESPN by the operators?
Bornstein: I'm not stupid enough to comment on that.
MCN: Are you surprised that there is such animosity out there, about sports programming and costs?
Bornstein: Again, it's not my fight.
MCN: It could be. As I said, operators are saying that they're spending too much on sports now. So again my question is, are you concerned that operators are watching [sports] costs?
Bornstein: The operators make a mistake if they want to turn NFL Network into a sports product. This is a lifestyle network. And they'll miss an opportunity to put a quality, fairly priced network within their programming mix if they lump us into [a] high-profile sports [category]. But needless to say for the cable operators, the cost of programming is not a particularly new phenomenon.
But to me, what we're doing at the NFL Network is putting out a high-quality, low-cost product. We're taking advantage of the incredible desire of our fans, for more information, more data — the 3,000 hours of our library that has basically documented the NFL's history for the last 40-plus years. It's the equivalent of Warner Brothers or MGM's library of films.
MCN: Does it concern you that operators are already categorizing the NFL Channel as a niche sports network and lumping it in with other start-up services?
Bornstein: I'm concerned anytime anybody wants to lump me in with anything. I think we [the NFL] stand head and shoulders above everything else. I would have said that without being under their employ.
The fact of the matter is the NFL programming is by and far the best of any programming, not just sports, but better than any scripted programming. It's guaranteed success — you don't know the ending. That's the beauty of live sports programming to begin with. We're taking that and putting all the surrounding shoulder programming together. It's a pretty compelling programming mix.
I've spent 20 years programming sports, and there's nothing stronger, there's nothing better, and there's nothing with as broad a reach. You can lump it in with whatever you want. It's just good TV.
MCN: Have any advertisers signed on at this point?
Bornstein: None that we're going to announce. There is nothing that this network can't do that hasn't attracted great attention. We've been quiet for six months. We're a little over 100 days away from launch, and we're going to start sharing with you what has been the most remarkable and positive response to this network to any I've been involved with.
MCN: We talked a little bit about the programming, but can you talk more about what we may see on the network?
Bornstein: We're going to put a fair amount of original programming on there. We're going to launch with an 8 o'clock program every night called NFL Total Access, which would be inside look at what's going on with the NFL. It's basically reports from all 32 clubs every day, both from the field and outside the field, as well as human-interest stories.
Then we're going to NFL Films Presents, which is basically storytelling of the highest order. Finally, at 10 o'clock, we're going to go into what we're calling Playbook. One of the shows featured within Playbook will be the game of the week — an hour-long, NFL Films-style game of the week, each and every week, from the previous Sunday's games.
There'll be basically a series of [shows] looking forward to games and match-ups. It'll appeal to the real avid fan, including the fantasy football player, giving data and information he couldn't get anywhere else.
MCN: Is there anything else you want to add about the network?
Bornstein: To me, this is a logical and positive evolution of the NFL marketing machine. This is great, great entertainment. We're filling a void in the media landscape, in that we're providing an outlet to support the No. 1 franchise in entertainment. Whatever Entertainment Tonight does for movies and media, we expect the NFL Network to do for the NFL.